• October 24, 2014

New Research Sheds Light on What Works in Charitable Appeals

Some conventional fund-raising wisdom has been turned upside down by a growing number of psychologists and economists who study altruism, while other approaches now have an increasing amount of research to back them up

Scholars have found that fund-raising appeals do best when they are crafted around a single gripping image, informing donors about big gifts that their peers have contributed helps expand giving, and holding an athletic marathon — or even a walk over smoldering coals — might do more to encourage donations than a picnic or gala ball.

Those were among many findings presented at a conference last week at Princeton University. Titled “Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charitable Giving,” the event was paid for by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and sponsored by the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The scholars who spoke at the conference sought to unravel the reasons why some crises elicit outpourings of support while others do not, and what charities can do to draw potential donors to their cause.

Many speakers explored the extent to which donors are more sympathetic to the plight of an individual victim than to mass suffering.

In one experiment, researchers found that information about the scope of a crisis may dilute the emotional impact of an image of a single victim. Subjects in the experiment were shown a photograph of Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali who was facing starvation.

A second group was shown the same image along with information about the scale of poverty in Africa. The image of Rokia, without the accompanying statistics, won the charity more money.

“It really puts fund raisers in a fix,” said George Loewenstein, an economics and psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University and one of three researchers who conducted the study. “They want to appeal to the mind and the heart. But if they do, there’s a real risk of undermining the heart.”

In another study, Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, found that people were more sympathetic to a single starving child than they were to two children facing the same plight.

In the experiment, people were asked to give money to fight hunger overseas. In one scenario, the money would go to Rokia; in a second, to a boy, Moussa; and in a third, to both Rokia and Moussa. People gave equal amounts in the first two scenarios, but they donated less money to the two children combined.

“We cannot wrap our minds around two people as well as around one,” said Mr. Slovic. He said that the study showed that people’s instincts fail them when responding to genocide, famine, and other large-scale crises. People are also less able to empathize with suffering that takes place far away than in their own backyard.

Jonathan Baron, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that participants in a study said they would give less money to children in a foreign country than in their own, even if both groups of children were said to be equally needy.

Other researchers looked at how creating a personal tie between a victim and a donor, regardless of how tenuous, can help drive contributions.

Uri Simonsohn, an assistant professor of operations and information management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, found that people were more likely to give money to someone about whom they had recently learned one simple fact — where that person would like to visit in the world — than to someone about whom they knew nothing.

Pen-pal relationships, celebrity spokesmen, and opportunities for potential donors to socialize with people who benefit from a particular charity are all good ways to capitalize on this “friends of victim” phenomenon, he said.

Some research, meanwhile, suggested that charities might be too skeptical of volunteers and donors who lack an obvious personal connection to a cause. Rebecca Ratner, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland at College Park, found that some charities expressed doubt that potential volunteers without a personal tie to the cause could be serious and committed.

“Don’t underestimate how much people care about your organization, even if they don’t have a personal connection to it,” she said. Donors also prefer to spread their support among many organizations, even if it means their favorite cause receives less money or their gifts are less effective.

Michal Strahilevitz, an associate professor of marketing at Golden Gate University, found that participants in a study were more likely to divide three $100 bills among three organizations working on different causes than they were to give most of their money to a single cause.

She said that charities can capitalize on this information by providing many different ways for people to give. A donor who supports a single charity by sponsoring a child, paying for school supplies, and supporting advocacy may feel more satisfied than a supporter who gives the same amount to a single program within the organization, she said.

Many donors are also turned off by the prospect that their gifts might be spent on marketing or other overhead costs — which they might perceive as being wasteful — rather than on programs.

Mr. Baron, of the University of Pennsylvania, asked people in one study to divide their money between two imaginary charities that spent $1,000 to save five lives — one spent $800 and had $200 left over for advertising, and a second spent $900 to save the lives and had $100 left over. People donated more to the second charity, even though it was not as efficient in its efforts to save lives.

“People want to cause the good, they don’t want to do it indirectly,” he said. Peer pressure may also be a good way to solicit gifts. Rachel Croson, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, found that people who participated in a phone-athon for a local radio station gave a larger-than-average gift when they were told about a big gift a previous caller had made.

But setting the bar too high turned off some donors. When callers were told that an earlier contributor had contributed $1,000 — which was among the largest gifts of the previous year’s campaign — they didn’t increase their giving.

“People are social animals,” Ms. Croson said. “They don’t want to be the sucker who gives too much, and they don’t want to be the jerk who gives too little.” What’s more, when callers were told about a gift from a donor of their same sex, they donated more than if the previous caller was of the opposite sex.

Christopher Olivola, a graduate student in psychology at Princeton, suggested that fund-raising events that involve pain — such as marathons or even walks across shards of glass — might sometimes spur bigger gifts than pleasurable events such as picnics or dinners.

In one experiment, he asked subjects to imagine how much they would donate to a fictitious fund-raising event to help tsunami victims. People gave about $25 to participate in an imaginary five-mile run, but when they envisioned attending a picnic, they gave just $15.

In a second study, Mr. Olivola found that participants in a group decision-making game who were required to stick their hands in freezing water before contributing to a collective pool of money gave more than those who didn’t have to suffer before they donated.

Mr. Olivola attributed the results of the study to a phenomenon he dubbed the “martyrdom effect.” “When you have to work hard and suffer for a cause, then you become more involved and more motivated to help that cause,” he said.

Next, he hopes to test whether such pain-inducing fund-raising events are well suited for all causes. People might be motivated to run a marathon to fight cancer or end genocide, he speculated, but not to support an art museum or the Girl Scouts of the USA.

Many of the speakers noted the challenges of evoking sympathy, guilt, and other emotions that might induce people to donate.

“The tears have been dried off,” Mr. Slovic, of the University of Oregon, said. “The question is, How do we put the tears back on?”

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